On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald

The German writer W. G. Sebald was born in 1944, so he had no memories of World War 2. But memory was one of the principal themes of the books he wrote. In 1999, he published the long essay “On the Natural History of Destruction”. Its subject is the Allied aerial bombardment of Germany in the final years of the war, or rather the failure of German writers to properly document and reflect on the effects of that bombing on Germany’s civilian population. Sebald believed that such horrible events deserved to be discussed and written about clearly and honestly. Instead, the survivors of the bombing avoided speaking about it and few German writers addressed the subject at all, or if they did, they did so poorly. Sebald doesn’t defend the German government and doesn’t spend much time criticizing the morality or the rationale behind the bombing. He is trying to understand what the experience was like for the German population and why the memory of it doesn’t seem to have been directly confronted.

There are three shorter essays in the book, each dealing with a writer who lived through the war, none of whom are well-known in America. The essay about the bombing, which is actually titled “Air War and Literature”, is the one that is worth reading.

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olson

America was a much angrier place in the years before World War II than I realized. It had only been twenty years since the end of the last war. The thought of getting involved in another one, especially in Europe, was very hard to accept. Even after Hitler was on the march, even after the Germans took France, many Americans believed we should stay out of the war. Some were even opposed to providing assistance to Great Britain, arguing that we should remain completely neutral. They hoped the British and Germans could negotiate an end to the war. If that didn’t happen, they were willing to see Germany conquer all of Europe rather than fight another war.    

There was an amazing level of animosity between these “isolationists” and the “interventionists” who wanted us to do whatever we could to stop Hitler. Organizations were formed; mass meetings were held; national radio broadcasts were delivered. Insults were hurled and friendships were destroyed. There were student protests. As the most famous isolationist, Charles Lindbergh was branded a Nazi sympathizer and a traitor. 

But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we all had somebody else to be angry with. When President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war, even the isolationist Republicans in Congress gave him a standing ovation. 

Those Angry Days is an interesting book, even though the author spends too much time on Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh (it really seems as if the author would have liked to write a book about them). Aside from the incredible amount of controversy over our involvement in the war (controversy that began before 1939, despite the book’s subtitle), the most surprising part of the story is President Roosevelt’s unwillingness to force the issue. He was clearly an “interventionist” who wanted to help the British, but, according to the author, he vacillated and procrastinated. He feared public opinion, even when most of the public were in favor of intervention. He made stirring speeches but didn’t follow through. It drove Churchill crazy. If you can believe Those Angry Days, it was only after Pearl Harbor that Roosevelt went back to being the strong leader he’d been in the early years of the Depression.

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War by Paul Fussell

Paul Fussell’s best-known book is The Great War and Modern Memory. In that book, he wrote about the effect of World War I, especially trench warfare, on British writers. Wartime is Fussell’s similar book about World War II. This one isn’t mainly concerned with the war’s effect on writers, however. It has a much broader scope. There are discussions, for example, of the myth of “precision” bombing; the frequency of military foul-ups; rumors; rationing; stereotypes; accentuating the positive; casualty rates; popular songs; swearing; hunger; and sexual frustration. There is even a whole chapter devoted to “chickenshit” – the petty crap that superiors inflict on subordinates.

Fussell wrote from experience. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart as an infantry officer in France. His goal in Wartime was to capture the reality of World War II as it was endured by American and British soldiers, sailors and airmen, especially those who actually saw combat (a small minority of those who served). He often does this by contrasting military reality with the sanitized version presented to the people back home. If you were in the service but not in combat, your main emotions were boredom and anger. If you were in combat, it was fear and horror.

According to Fussell, the authorities eventually realized that engaging in more than 240 days of combat (not consecutive days, but total days) would drive anyone insane. That sums up World War II for the men who did the actual fighting.

The Thin Red Line by James Jones

James Jones enlisted in the army in 1939. He witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was the basis for his first novel From Here to Eternity. The Thin Red Line is a kind of sequel to From Here to Eternity, since it’s based on his experiences as an infantryman on Guadalcanal, the Pacific island the Allies invaded nine months after Pearl Harbor.

The novel is 500 pages long, but engrossing and fast-moving. If I were a military recruiter, I would not recommend this book to prospective soldiers. 7,100 members of the Allied forces, mostly Americans, died on Guadalcanal, and 31,000 Japanese. It’s hard to believe that the men who survived lived through it. In addition to the actual fighting, there was heat, exhaustion, lack of food and water (especially water), lack of sleep and malaria.

It’s hard to follow the battle scenes sometimes, since the geography is confusing, and it’s sometimes hard to remember which character is which, since there are so many of them, but that’s o.k. Combat is said to be confusing. Jones does a great job expressing the inner thoughts of his characters, almost all of whom would rather be anywhere else. Among these recurring thoughts are fear of dying, fear of cowardice, the pleasure and relief that comes from killing instead of being killed, the numbness that results from extended combat, and the love and hatred of one’s fellow soldiers.

One minor complaint: for some reason, 90% of the characters have single-syllable last names. Maybe it was common practice to use shortened last names in the Army, but it’s distracting to see a bunch of characters named Stein, Band, Whyte, Blane, Gore and Culp (the officers); Welsh, Culn, Grove, Keck, Spain, Stack, Storm, Beck, Field, Fox, Potts, Thorne and Wick (sergeants); Fife, Jenks and Queen (corporals); and Bead, Cash, Dale, Doll, Earl, Fronk, Hoff, Land, Marl and Park (privates first class).

Jones describes some relatively pleasant moments for his characters, but they are rare. Much more common are descriptions like these:

“Digging. Their neverending, universal digging. Sweating and panting with exhaustion, digging. Like last night. And almost every night in the world. And sometimes two or three times in the day. A place to lay your head. Three by three by seven, slit trench. Only the very lucky ever inherited another outfit’s holes. Nobody ever dug the round deep foxholes here because there weren’t any tanks. Here the home was the slit trench.”  

“As they crawled, suddenly, for no real reason, he found himself remembering that young, foolish, innocent, gullible Corporal Fife, that total stranger, who once had stood forth in the dawn on Hill 209 and had stretched out his arms willing to be killed for mankind, and the love of mankind. Well, fuck mankind, that bunch of ‘honorable’ animals. Piss and shit on them. That was what they deserved.”

No wonder these guys dreamed about getting wounded, just seriously enough to get the hell off that island.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The author Timothy Snyder calculates that Stalin and Hitler were responsible for the murder of 14 million people between 1933 and 1945, mainly in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. This didn’t include those who died from combat. The 14 million were civilians or prisoners of war intentionally killed by starvation, gunshot or gas, including the roughly 5.4 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

It is almost unbelievable that so many innocent people could have been killed. Stalin mostly killed citizens of his own country. Hitler mostly killed citizens of other countries. Stalin began by collectivizing Soviet agriculture and then tried to eliminate anyone who might conceivably pose a threat. Hitler wanted to colonize Eastern Europe and, while doing so, eliminate as many Jews and Slavs as possible. If Germany had conquered the Soviet Union, Hitler intended to kill as many as 30 million. 

I didn’t know that Stalin invaded Poland soon after Hitler in September 1939, while Stalin and Hitler were still allies. Or that relatively few German Jews were killed. The concentration camps that were liberated by the Americans and British weren’t the main site of the Holocaust, which occurred farther east and mostly targeted non-Germans. 

Snyder ends his book with a chapter that tries to explain how this all happened. Part of his explanation is that both Hitler and Stalin had utopian ideas. Stalin wanted to quickly turn the Soviet Union into a socialist paradise. Hitler wanted to quickly defeat the Soviet Union and create a vast empire that would serve Germany alone. In Snyder’s words:

“Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory”.  (1/10/13)

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

Rogue Male, a novel published in 1939, isn’t about an elephant on the loose. It’s about a wealthy English nobleman who is a famous adventurer and apparently a big-game hunter. He decides to stalk the leader of a foreign country, supposedly not to assassinate him, but to see if an assassination would be possible. The Englishman, who is never named, is captured before he decides whether to pull the trigger. 

The foreign leader is never named either, but his country borders Poland, so it’s apparently Hitler. The Englishman is tortured and left for dead but escapes, eventually making his way back home. Unfortunately, he has to keep running, because the bad guys, not having found his corpse, are looking for him. So, eventually, are the police. Most of the novel takes place in the English countryside, and, surprisingly, underneath it. Once again, the hunter has become the hunted (hunters should be used to that by now). 

I heard about this novel because it’s one of the out-of-print books that the New York Review of Books has been reissuing. It’s a terrific adventure story and has been filmed twice. As with most adventure stories, it isn’t quite plausible, but it would be interesting to see a film version, or try to write one.  (5/17/12)